Phideaux - Number Seven
(A Post-Pythagorean Presentation by Phideaux)

(reviewed on 8/24/09)

Rating: 4.5 Stars (out of 5)

A dense album, Phideaux’s Number Seven (not-so-coincidentally, the band’s seventh release) reveals itself over repeated listens. A conceptual piece, Number Seven follows what I consider to be Phideaux’s breakout album, Doomsday Afternoon, which is also a concept album and one that this author considered the best release of 2007. So, there would seem to be some pressure on the band to reach the lofty bar set by Doomsday. Though the bar was indeed set high, Phideaux seems not to have succumbed to the pressure, as Number Seven delivers big time. It is a shame such a majestic concept album could not feature a more creative title, particularly from such a creative bunch, and their ringleader in particular, but the mundane title belies the music contained within. But this is a minor quibble.

This album, according to the liner notes, tells the wonderfully cryptic tale of "our character, the dormouse." This seems to represent the "sheep" of today’s society, blindly following whatever doctrine to which they happen to adhere. I could be wrong, but that’s what it says to me. Complicating the narrative are numerous references to the battle between crayfish and shrew, which appears (at least lyrically) to be tilted in favor of the shrew. Earth is winning its eternal battle against the sea, it would seem.

The album is bookended with "Dormouse – A Theme" and "Dormouse – An End," which are short pieces reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s "Pigs on the Wing" songs on either end of their Animals album. The opera is divided neatly into three acts (One: Dormouse Ensnared; Two: Dormouse Escapes; Three: Dormouse Enlightened).

The first of the two dormouse pieces is instrumental and acoustically sets a bit of an ominous tone for the album. That ominous tone grows darker with the second track, "Waiting for the Axe to Fall." "Waiting" introduces some wonderful themes (particularly on piano / keys) that will be repeated later in the album. It is one of the standout tracks, for me, with dark-yet-hopeful (“we might just make it through”) lyrics. The interplay of vocals between Phideaux Xavier and Valerie Gracious were a hallmark of the band’s epic masterpiece, Doomsday Afternoon, and they shine on in this track as well. "Hive Mind" picks up the pace a bit and continues the excellent vocal work. One thing I notice in this track in particular is the quality of Rich Hutchins’ drumming.

Gracious shines in new and exciting ways on "The Claws of a Crayfish." It seems criminal that this fine talent isn’t a household name. Her vocal work is a staple of the best Phideaux has to offer. Ariel Farber’s violin work also lights up this track and makes it one of my favorites on the disc. Backing vocals are another ongoing strength of this band, and Farber, along with twin sisters Molly Ruttan and Linda Ruttan-Moldawsky spice up the Phideaux gumbo nicely, all throughout the album. The end of "Claws" revisits some of the dramatic piano themes introduced in "Waiting for the Axe to Fall."

"My Sleeping Slave" slows the pace and gives the band an opportunity to show off their harmonizing chops, to great effect. It brings the curtain down on Act I (Dormouse Ensnared), to such a point that one can even envision a curtain literally coming down in front of the band, were they to ever perform this album in its entirety.

Act II begins with "Darkness at Noon," which itself starts out with a simple acoustic guitar arrangement and Phideaux’s earnest vocals. This track links back to Doomsday Afternoon lyrically (“I was separated from you” – a lyric used multiple times in the previous album). I enjoy the lyrics in this one, as the dormouse determines not to “wait until the ground is my home” to take action. The upbeat lyrics play nicely against the somber ambience of the music. This short piece segues into the keyboard/harmony vocals/acoustic guitar opening of "Prequiem."  A nice electric solo finally peeks out from behind the dark tones.

"Gift of the Flame" arises from the two short pieces that introduce Act II. This is another one of the album’s high points and is one of the more instrumentally satisfying sections. We get some Floyd-ish saxophone from Johnny Unicorn early on, followed by interplay between keyboard and Matthew Kennedy’s bass. I’m not sure if Unicorn or Mark Sherkus is on the keys here, but it works well. When Gracious’ vocals kick in, the song takes off nicely and some of the more interesting lyrics are found in this track. I particularly like “as day by day the buzzard birds bite bits away.”

"Interview with a Dormouse" starts with a somewhat industrial sounding keyboard part, then revisits the album’s opening theme, adding lyrics (“dormouse, dormouse have you any cheese or did it melt in the thermonuclear breeze?”), before giving way to "Thermonuclear Cheese," with its over-the-top harmony vocal beginning, whistling and intricate keyboard tapestries. It speaks wonderfully about this record that the short instrumental connecting pieces are every bit as interesting as the “proper songs.”

"The Search for Terrestrial Life" starts softly with a voiceover (the Ruttan sisters?) that sounds like it came from an episode of Nova, and perhaps did. We learn here again (as in "Claws") that the claws of a crayfish pose little challenge to a shrew. We get a different female lead vocal here (Farber, I believe) to alternate with Phideaux’s male lead. Lyrically this has a sort of “sleeper has awakened” feel to it. Finally, "A Fistful of Fortitude" finishes Act II with a “la-la” chorus, a nice bit of keyboard/guitar/bass interplay and a reprise of the second female lead vocal.

Act III begins with what could be described as the album’s showpiece, "Love Theme from Number Seven." The song opens with dramatic piano that would be as at home in Phantom of the Opera as this particular rock album. The tempo builds as more instruments come to the fore, blending together nicely into probably the most “rocking” track on the album. There is some very good electric guitar here, followed by an interesting chant behind Farber’s wonderful violin. There are little keyboard flourishes in this song that work very well and the great (lyric-free) harmony vocals and, because prog knows no such word as excess, another tasty electric guitar solo. Gabriel Moffat’s guitar work doesn’t stick out often enough for me, but it is magical when it does.

"Love Theme" gives way into Phideaux’s homage to Italian prog, "Storia Senti." Thankfully, although Phideaux sings in Italian, a lyrical translation is provided in the liner notes. More Farber violin provides additional flavor before the song picks up the tempo with a piano theme overlaid with electric guitar and finally some more “ba pa pa pa pa” lyric-less vocal harmonies. Another minor quibble here, but for me the “ba pa pa pa pa” vocals overstay their welcome, prior to a bit of a psychedelic musical meld that resolves into violin-bass-keys-guitar and another, but harsher, lyric-less vocal.

"Infinite Supply" provides a fantastic final highlight of the album. Our dormouse is truly enlightened. Phideaux takes the lead vocal over piano to start the track. The album seems its most upbeat here in terms of tone and then breaks into a very short, but gorgeous, guitar bit that seems as if it found its way here from Steve Howe’s tapes during the Tales for Topographic Oceans sessions. The vocals/keys resume and build, followed by a piano/bass/guitar interlude and returning again to a building vocal crescendo. And is that an Echoes-ish keyboard ‘ping’ sound I hear in there toward the end? I think so. The song fades to silence before the return of our dormouse closing theme, and all too soon the ride is over.

Aside from the music, the disc features some wonderful artwork with various theaters of battle between the crayfish and the shrew, thanks to Linda Ruttan-Moldawsky. The band name and album name are both absent from the beautiful cover artwork. However, I’m not thrilled with the use of the futuristic font on the back or side panels. Permit me one last minor quibble, eh?

In the end, though it is difficult for me to find anything bad to say about this record, I will say this: for me, it does not quite reach the soaring heights pioneered in Doomsday Afternoon. That is not to say it is worse (or better, for that matter) than Doomsday. It is a different animal indeed, but distinctly Phideaux, all the way. It is a consistently good release that demands repeat listens and repeat listens it shall have, at least from this listener.

Track List:

One: Dormouse Ensnared
1. Dormouse – A Theme
2. Waiting for the Axe to Fall
3. Hive Mind
4. The Claws of a Crayfish
5. My Sleeping Slave

Two: Dormouse Escapes
6. Darkness at Noon
7. Prequiem
8. Gift of the Flame
9. Interview With a Dormouse
10. Thermonuclear Cheese
11. The Search for Terrestrial Life
12. A Fistful of Fortitude

Three: Dormouse Enlightened
13. Love Theme From Number Seven
14. Storia Senti
15. Infinite Supply
16. Dormouse – An End